In the last few years, games have started to use complex issues – depression, loss, examinations of violence, the nature of choice, grief, and so on – as major mechanics and ideas in their gameplay systems. But I think It Takes Two might be the first game to try its hand at turning a broken marriage into a co-op-only action-adventure game.
The story follows Cody and May, who have decided that it’s easier to split up than solve whatever problems they’re having. Naturally, this upsets their daughter Rose, who has bought a book about love in the hopes of helping her parents. When she cries onto the homemade dolls representing her parents while wishing they would stay together, she inadvertently transfers her parents’ consciousness into the bodies of the dolls. The game chronicles their journey to escape the spell that binds them. Cody and May aren’t alone, though: they have the (unwanted) help of The Book of Love/Dr. Hakim, an anthropomorphic book with an extremely questionable Spanish/French/Italian/who knows really accent who is determined to get Cody and May back together.
"The game’s tone is all over the place. One minute a very distressed Rose is trying to talk to the empty bodies of her parents and the next a talking book with a bad accent is lecturing the two dolls containing the consciousness of said parents about the importance of collaboration while hip-thrusting"
While the game is often very charming, It Takes Two’s story is utterly bonkers, and honestly one of the game’s biggest problems. The game’s tone is all over the place. One minute a very distressed Rose is trying to talk to the empty bodies of her parents and the next a talking book with a bad accent is lecturing the two dolls containing the consciousness of said parents about the importance of collaboration while hip-thrusting. Dr. Hakim is meant to be funny, but his appearances are mostly very awkward and uncomfortable.
The larger problem, however, is the game’s portrayal of marriage. It Takes Two never takes the time to really get into May and Cody’s issues. Cody complains that May is never home, and it seems like May resents Cody for not providing for the family the way she does, but the things that break their marriage are never explored. Instead of being a marriage that collapses under the weight of serious problems, their relationship seems like one that shouldn’t have ended in a marriage in the first place. Almost all they do is argue, and while they may complement each other when things in the game are going well, they’re quick to blame each other for any new issues that arise. Meanwhile, the game continues to push the idea that all of this is solvable if they just learn to like each other again without ever digging into the more complex realities that arise in a long-term relationship. On the surface, It Takes Two seems to want to explore complex ideas, but it pivots away from them almost as soon as they arise.
It also doesn’t help that Cody and May are genuinely terrible people. Not only do they seem incapable of parenting their daughter, knowing how each other thinks, feels, or spends their time, or working out problems without immediately resorting to blaming one another, they also do some genuinely terrible things. At one point, the couple becomes convinced that to break the spell they’re under, Rose needs to cry on them. They decide that the best way to make this happen is to murder Rose’s favorite toy elephant, Cutie, who, like everything else in the world around them, seems to have been brought to life by the spell animating the dolls Cody and May inhabit. When Cutie learns Cody and May plan to murder her, she begs for her life, but they’re determined. By the time they throw her to her death, she’s lost an arm and an ear. Cody and May claim they feel bad about the whole thing, but that doesn’t stop them from mutilating and murdering a living thing because they think it will help them. The scene is incredibly uncomfortable to play and highlights the inconsistency in It Takes Two’s writing, which alternates between hopelessly naive and incredibly dark.
"The traditional platforming is great, but what makes the gameplay in It Takes Two special are the unique abilities that each character gets in certain situations."
Fortunately, the gameplay fares much better. As I said before, the game is co-op only, requiring another person to join in via local vertical split-screen or online. I teamed up with my wife and we played the game on our couch, but whatever you choose, the game is split-screen so you can see what your partner is doing. The game starts off as a platformer, with both characters having access to a spring, jump, double-jump, and air dash ability. The platforming is both responsive and precise, so you’ll feel confident as you take on everything from the easiest jumps to the most stressful gauntlets. As with Hazelight’s previous game, A Way Out, you’ll have to help one another out to progress. Sometimes that means flipping switches to open doors for your partner, moving navigating splitting paths, or moving around parts of the environment.
The traditional platforming is great, but what makes the gameplay in It Takes Two special are the unique abilities that each character gets in certain situations. Early on, Cody has nails that he can throw into wooden walls to hold things in place or create paths for May to swing across with the head of a hammer. Later, May gains access to a pair of anti-gravity boots that let her walk up walls, while Cody acquires a special belt that allows him to grow or shrink at will. At another point, Cody gets a gun that can fire sap that sticks to environments and enemy wasps, while May gets a matchstick gun that can detonate the sap.
As the game’s mechanics change, so does the type of game that It Takes Two becomes. In the space-themed level, it’s a puzzle-platformer that evokes bits of Super Mario Galaxy. In the section with the sap and matchstick guns, it’s a third-person shooter. Later, in a medieval section where Cody becomes a wizard and May takes the role of a knight, it plays like Diablo. Sometimes, the two players end up playing completely different games, like the section in which Cody flies a plane through a nearby tree while May stares down the leader of the local squirrel militia in a Street Fighter-style piece of one-on-one combat.
"It Takes Two often feels like the best Nintendo games, consistently introducing new mechanics and evolving their use in creative ways before testing the player’s mastery of them, generally in a boss fight. After that, they are discarded and never appear again."
Just when you think the game is running out of ideas, something else comes around the corner, each with its own unique set of mechanics that is never repeated at any point in the game, and all of it executed very well. It Takes Two often feels like the best Nintendo games, consistently introducing new mechanics and evolving their use in creative ways before testing the player’s mastery of them, generally in a boss fight. After that, they are discarded and never appear again. It Takes Two shows repeated mastery of several genres and game mechanics, and nothing ever overstays its welcome. None of the games are exceptionally deep, but the sheer breadth of them means you’ll never be bored, and It Takes Two always finds creative ways to make sure you’re communicating with your partner and working together.
The game’s environments are similarly creative. Players spend time in space, on a pirate ship, riding dinosaurs, navigating a warzone, climbing a tree, and everything in-between. While each environment is clearly designed with a specific gameplay goal in mind, there’s plenty of other pieces of the environment to interact with. There are also mini-games to find and play against your partner that include tug-of-war, a Guitar Hero-esque rhythm game, a shooting range, a pair of battle tanks, and more. Like every other bit of It Takes Two’s gameplay, they’re a lot of fun, and the game keeps score of who wins a loses so you can claim bragging rights.
The only problem with It Takes Two’s gameplay is that sometimes one character gets a more interesting ability or plays a more interesting segment than the other, though these are generally few and far between. Generally, both players have something interesting to do, and most of the time, the differences made me want to replay the game as the other character to see how it felt. Combine the game’s unbridled creativity and sheer variety with its excellent art design and wonderful music, and It Takes Two is a joy to play.
" Most games of this kind falter because they can’t tell when something is or isn’t fun, and the poor sections overstay their welcome. Here, the characters and story are what could have used both more attention and an editor."
It Takes Two isn’t a long game; most players will finish it in 10-12 hours, and it’s not particularly difficult, either. Players have an unlimited number of lives and checkpoints are very generous. About the only you have to restart a section is if you and your partner both die at the same time. Even then, most of the progress you’ve made will be preserved. It’s probably a good decision, given how much of the game’s appeal is that something new is always around the corner, but don’t come to It Takes Two looking for a challenge; it mostly isn’t there, though that doesn’t stop it from being a blast to play, especially with the right partner.
It really is a shame, then, that its story is so shallow and its characters so unlikeable. I know I was supposed to be rooting for Cody and May to make up, get back together, and regain their original bodies, but I often found myself thinking that they deserved what was happening to them – which, admittedly, is kind of the point. They’re both intensely unlikeable people and objectively awful parents, and it’s a shame that you have to deal with them to enjoy the rest of what It Takes Two has to offer. Most games of this kind falter because they can’t tell when something is or isn’t fun, and the poor sections overstay their welcome. Here, the characters and story are what could have used both more attention and an editor.
As poor as some of the storytelling choices are, however, it doesn’t stop It Takes Two from being an excellent co-op game, whether you’re playing it on a couch or online. I just wish that I’d cared more about its characters and thought they might actually benefit from getting back together – and that Rose had left Dr. Hakim on the shelf where he belonged.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 4.
Constantly changing, consistently excellent gameplay. Beautiful art design and lovely music. Lots of things to interact with. Several cool environments to explore. Excellent used of co-op gameplay. Fun mini-games.
The story doesn't really touch on the character's problems. Dr. Hakim is the worst. May and Cody are terrible people and it's hard to root for them.
While its story and characters could have used more work, It Takes Two is a fantastic co-op game that moves masterfully from genre to genre and never overstays its welcome.